The cost of thermoforming depends on several factors, including the design, tooling, materials, and labor needed to complete your part. You can expect to spend $2,000-10,000 minimum on a single thermoforming mold. Each plastic sheet will cost $35-45 based on the material choice, but if a part is small, multiple may be made from the same sheet. Depending on what technology you use to make your mold, you may cut expenses in other areas, such as time spent designing your part or waiting to receive your mold.
In this article, we’ll discuss what thermoforming is, what to consider when calculating cost, and ways that 3D printing your tooling can benefit your production. For simplicity, this article only mentions single-sided thermoforming.
What is Thermoforming?
Thermoforming is a manufacturing method that utilizes heat and vacuum pressure to make 3D plastic parts from 2D thermoplastic sheets. It is used to produce parts in both low and high volumes.
The thermoforming process involves first making a mold of the part. Air channels are built into this mold in order to successfully pull the plastic taut over the surface. The mold is then loaded into the thermoforming machine, along with a sheet of thermoplastic. A heating element raises the temperature of the plastic sheet to the material’s glass transition temperature, at which it becomes rubbery and moldable. The sheet is then lowered onto the mold. A vacuum underneath the mold then suctions away the air between the mold and the plastic. This makes the plastic form to the mold’s shape. Once cooled, the plastic is removed from the mold, trimmed, and finished.
Thermoforming Cost Factors
There are several factors that influence the cost of thermoforming your part, and it is important to consider each to ensure thermoforming is the most practical choice.
Thermoform molds are commonly made from aluminum or polyurethane. These molds are often a few thousand dollars each and can take 6-8 weeks to machine. Molds can also be 3D printed, though the cost is comparable to machining if not higher.
Your material cost will depend on what type of plastic you choose, though the average you can expect is $35-45 per sheet. Since thermoforming plastic stock is made in a sheet and parts require trimming after cooling, keep in mind that you will often pay for more material than you need for each part.
Cost of each part is also dependent on the cycle time. A full cycle includes the time to load, heat, draw, cool, and unload a part. The size and thickness of the part will determine how long the part must cool before removal.
Part geometry will determine how much material is used from a single sheet. If your part is small, you may be able to make multiple copies from a single pull or sheet and reduce material waste cost.
In addition to loading, drawing, and unloading, there are post-processing labor costs to consider. Once a part has been removed from the machine, it will need to be trimmed and have its edges finished. The time and amount of labor this process requires will depend on whether you are using stamping or hand-trimming to complete this step. For stamping, you should also factor in the cost of a die, though these will only cost a few hundred dollars.
Benefits of 3D Printed Tooling
While traditionally machined aluminum and polyurethane molds get the job done satisfactorily, there are benefits to 3D printing your tooling. Plastic molds can perform just as well as metal and can withstand roughly 2,000 thermoform cycles before deformation. While a 3D printed mold won’t be much cheaper than an aluminum mold, it can be produced in days rather than weeks, making it ideal for meeting tight deadlines.
As opposed to traditionally machined aluminum and polyurethane molds that take 6-8 weeks to cut, 3D printed molds can be made in as little as 48 hours. This will allow your production to start much sooner than with metal tooling.
CNC machining is often limited with the geometry it is able to cut. This can make producing your part the way you need difficult. With 3D printing, however, virtually any geometry is achievable, including undercuts, fine details, and more.
The air channels needed in a thermoforming mold may also be restricted by CNC machining, making it so they may not be able to be placed in the most ideal areas. 3D printing solves this issue because the additive process allows these channels to be placed anywhere, enabling you to better control the pull direction of the thermoforming vacuum.
Thermoforming at 3 Space
Here at 3 Space, we offer multiple manufacturing services, including both thermoforming and 3D printed tooling. If you are unsure whether thermoforming or 3D printed tooling is right for your part, our engineers are happy to offer their expert advice based on your part’s design specifications. For more information, contact us today.